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August 27, 2016

MQM: the breach within


August 27, 2016

The MQM has dominated Sindh’s urban politics for quite some time. It built a reputation on many counts – its ethnic politics, its politics of shutting down Karachi and, most of all, the mercurial nature of its supreme leader in exile.

But one incident suddenly turned the tables on the party, and its exiled leader. It started at the Karachi Press Club, and ended in a brazen attack by its workers on media offices. That this attack was instigated by the exiled leader is nothing new. But this time, the reaction was different.

What followed was high-pitched drama, in which the key player was a top tier leader of the party. Interestingly, Dr Farooq Sattar started by defending the London-based leader in his press conference, explaining his characteristic diatribe as a result of mental strain. Then he shifted gears.

In a new line of defence, Dr Farooq Sattar divorced MQM Karachi from MQM London, took over leadership of the local chapter, and disclaimed any utterance by the London leader. In yesteryears, such a radical move from any party leader would have been sacrilegious; such is the fickle nature of politics.

To the above can be added, as the viewers witnessed, the whisking away a day earlier of Dr Sattar and some other leaders by the Rangers, who kept them in detention for a few hours. One can imagine that the whole of the MQM’s local leadership was on tenterhooks as to what they were witnessing – the supreme leader being publicly criticised. It was unreal for all those who witnessed Dr Sattars discourse, and many were left guessing on whose words these really were.

Dr Sattar is known for his quizzical responses, and that is how he defended his position. Was it firefighting, crisis management, or simply a survival tactic? It certainly seemed to be a bottom-up putsch.

While what Dr Sattar said signalled the end of the Altaf Hussain era in local politics, many political pundits refused to accept that. In the last three decades, the MQM has not seen or publicly debated any change in leadership, despite many crises. Though in the past Altaf Hussain had himself offered to ‘abdicate,’ in view of the party members’ passionate outrcy, he chose always to take back his fleeting decision.

So, the first question boggling the public was: where did the decision come from? If not from London, then where? And, when was the decision taken? If this followed the speech from London, there was very little time to take such a big decision. This decision is not just about a change in top leadership in the MQM, but also its role in the province and in national politics.

Incidentally, the above drama unfolded just a day before the election of the Karachi mayor – which eventually led to an incarcerated MQM leader being mayor.

As commentators lament the attack on a media house they should not forget that such incidents are not new. While the much quoted May 12 incident evokes unpleasant memories, nothing has been done by successive governments to bring the perpetrators to justice.

As Dr Farooq Sattar plays up his party leadership position, and Waseem Akhtar his new mayoral position, things look confused in Karachi. By design or incidence, the MQM seems split between two cities, two leaders, and two sets of followers – if not ideology. As the situation evolves, a lot depends on how the two sides sell and outplay the other; also, on how the CM House in Karachi and PM House in Islamabad address the rather murky situation.

The PPP still needs to co-opt the MQM in the Sindh Assembly, and the MQM represented in the local bodies headed by the fiery Waseem Akhtar. The PSP will try to cash in the spoils caused by the rupture.

 Whatever the result of the power struggle, it reflects an in-house change in a party that was run like a machine. The schism is going to have an impact on Sindh’s politics. It is to be seen how the Mohajir fare in this transition. They will need to adjust to the new political reality, the new face of the MQM, and a new set of challenges.

The writer teaches at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]


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